The Story Behind La Fée

The People who Pioneered Absinthe's Renaissance

Part 1 - The Early Days

 

 

Introduction

1998 was the start of an astonishing journey. Its purpose was to restore absinthe to legal status in France, the European Union and the wider world. It was something of a lonely road at the start, navigated mainly by intuition, with the support of friends and the backing of admirers of an iconic product outlawed by a century of prohibition.

George Rowley

Imagine throwing the first small stone from Bayford, in leafy Hertfordshire, into a totally still pond: From its epicentre in Soho, London, the ripples spread rapidly, not only through the media, whose comments were often ill-informed, but also the cocktail bar circuit, where the story of absinthe may be more accurately presented. At the same time the imagination of consumers fired, as they experienced absinthe for the first time. For many of them, initial curiosity and a sense of intrigue leads to genuine interest in exploring the place of absinthe in history - a story buried under long-forgotten laws, and two World Wars...

Pic of Absinthe books

As I found in early 1998, a few works of reference exist on the subject of absinthe, although some are now out of print and hard to find. The best known are Marie-Claude Delahaye's Absinthe  History of the Green Fairy, Barnaby Conrad (1988) Absinthe History in a Bottle,  and One of my favourites, Absinthe The Cocaine of the Nineteenth Century a small blue hardback by Doris Lanier, a title which, though perhaps unnecessarily emotive, does reflect the drink's physical, social and cultural impact prior the Great War (World War One).

All these accounts clearly demonstrate how inextricably absinthe became entwined with the culture of France, her capital, communities and colonies, far off New Orleans, and less obviously with Switzerland. Equally clear is that all these are historical accounts, describing the world of absinthe as it was before various bans were imposed against it more than a hundred years ago.

My company set out to change absinthe's status as merely an artefact of the past. Reading about absinthe is one thing. But seeing it, smelling it, tasting it, and finally experiencing it take one both physically and mentally to another level of understanding. Absinthe opens a door in time to a bygone age, bringing to life the heady atmosphere of Paris in the thirty years of decadence and enlightenment which led up to the Great War of 1914.

Until now, however, the involvement of my company (BBH Spirits Ltd. and La Fée LLP)as the key player in the Absinthe Renaissance has not been fully published. We have quietly gone about the business of returning absinthe to the consumer, reshaping and reinforcing it as a category and developing its profile in the market. Our aim is to achieve international enlightenment, by challenging barriers and bans, and to nurture respect and understanding for absinthe by educating our customers about its provenance, classification and styles (both Traditional and now Modern).

A Hundred Years of Prohibition

At the height of absinthe's popularity in France, 220 million litres of the spirit were distilled a year - a substantial output by anyone's reckoning. One litre correctly served - that is to say diluted with iced water poured through sugar (other than in the case of Suisse, for which no sugar is needed) produces the equivalent in volume of 40 glasses of wine, which just prior to the Great War added up to an impressive 8,800 million servings a year!

Two main reasons enabled Absinthe to catapult from an original cure-all starting late 18th century to the Café boulevards of Paris and Bars of New Orleans following the French colonies, Firstly the French sometimes issued it as a ration to troops in theatre of war and Empire building that were prone to malaria (Their then arch rivals on the world stage being the British controlled access to Quinine, used to ward off malaria Gin and Tonic and such!)The high alcohol would also help sterilize the water when added helping against dysentery. Troops returning from North Africa would have a natural affinity towards Absinthe with some Brands even showing images of soldiers to encourage patronage.

Absinthe Mugnier, Soldier

The other main catalyst was Phylloxera: This bug arrived from the USA mid 1850's and started to decimated the vineyards of Europe and especially France  Absinthe is a natural Drinking substitute to wine when prepared the Classic way dilution the 68% with 4 to 6 parts water though sugar. As the availability of wine collapsed and prices rose people naturally gravitated to Absinthe as a drink of choice. It took almost 30 years for the Wine industry to solve the capacity problem naturally the solution lay in the source of the bugs homelands (the Americas)as their grape vine root stock was resistant and old world vines needed to be grafted on the New World root stocks. A timely matter taking years to re-establish wines former production capacity and affordability letting Absinthe take its hold. It took the Great War and global bans to finally dislodge people's love affair with this Great Spirit - wine house politics looking to recover their former market played their part.

pic of Phylloxera bug

Absinthe was all but wiped off the face of the earth in a series of bans which started in 1898 in the Republic of Congo. Switzerland followed in 1910, and the USA in 1912. In 1915, the French ban was implemented not only through pressure from winemaking associations (still trying to regain market share following the bout of Phylloxera that decimated vineyards across Europe) and public action groups such as the Temperance League, but also by the absinthe "industry" itself: The unregulated nature of which facilitated low standards of production and some sharp practice. Finally in 1932, a referendum in Italy led to absinthe being banned there.

\Suppression of Absinthe poster

The bans varied in nature with some prohibiting the sale of absinthe, as we discovered in the case of France and her colonies; and others suppressing the use of the active ingredient, Thujone, which was the subject of the ban in the USA. The creation of Thujone is a side effect of distilling Grand Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium the source of the name absinthe) which is the core ingredient needed to distil absinthe. As the bans took hold, production, distillation and consumption in absinthe's heartlands tapered off substantially all the way through the First World War, although at the same time production did not entirely cease - with some producers merely moving across the border to Spain to continue their trade under more favourable conditions. However, after the outbreak of war the movement to ban absinthe gathered momentum, with more and more countries following the lead of Switzerland and the USA. Finally absinthe in France was faced with la cruauté du sort: the harshness of fate. Fortunately the long sleep has now finally ended and The Green Fairy can once again spread her wings and fly again, only this time her reach will not be restricted by old fading colonial empires. My intention is that 'The Green Fairy' will surpass her former glory and reach every corner of the globe.

What follows is my journal; a celebration and first-hand account of the first years of absinthe's return, from the launch of La Fée Absinthe Parisienne, a Grand Wormwood distilled absinthe bottled in Paris which, in 2000, restored traditional absinthe distilling to France for the first time since the 1915 ban continuing to this day.

This is the story of how I was able to return absinthe to the drinking public, allowing you to legally enjoy the historic spirit and taste across the world.

1984-1996: The Risk Business

Between 1984 and 1992 I was an International Claims and then Placing Broker at Lloyd's of London, placing risks for clients specialising in high risk exposure, such as terrorism, riots, strikes, tsunamis and cyclones all over the world - from the Solomon Islands to the Americas and European hot-spots.

image of Prague

In 1992 I took up residence in Prague as a consultant for Minet AS, then the largest brokering house that covered the Czech and Slovak Republics. I arrived at a time when state-owned insurers were looking to westernise their practices and industry; having taken the giant step of leaving the grip of the Soviet Union after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Our clients included the largest petroleum and steel plants in the region, and the biggest breweries and state-owned distilleries in Bohemia and Moravia on the Czech side and in Slovakia (combined under earlier Russian rule as the former Czechoslovakia). My role was to liaise between the big treaty re-insurers in the USA, Lloyd's of London underwriters and local insurance carriers which were mostly government-owned. I travelled extensively throughout the country visiting clients and our outlying offices in Liberets, Bohemia, near the border with Poland - and Ostraver Moravia, due east of Prague, an area of heavy industry which is also home to excellent beer from the Radagast brewery.

Whether chaperoning the World Bank, which was financing industrial operations on a grand scale for the first time in a former eastern bloc country, or a British supermarket seeking presence in the Czech market: I was conscious of the gap, not only between the then Soviet mentality and the western approach to business, but also to the potential impact of, and importance to our clients of local cultural differences. During its acquisition of the K-Mart operation in the Czech Republic, the Tesco due diligence team, for example, was most astonished to see Carp (the traditional Christmas Eve dish here) being sold live in store and then often being kept in domestic bathtubs for several days to purge them of the muddy taste characteristic of bottom-feeders. Another important distinction was the lower percentage of supermarket floor space around 30% - allocated to food retailing. Tesco is moving substantially towards that ratio in the UK (though live carp is still conspicuous by its absence) and it will be interesting to see how the company handles its current move into the USA, a market which La Fėe too is entering.

Insurance at this level demands detailed scrutiny both of clients' activities and the market in which they operate, so as to ensure that all risks are covered and minimised. Thus I found myself gaining invaluable insights into how companies perform, operate, and in particular handle quality control, and began to consider running one of my own

1996: The Drinks Business

George Rowley enjoying a pint

I set up my first company, Bohemia Beer House Ltd. (now trading as BBH Spirits Ltd.) with the aim of evaluating and exporting Czech beer. The intention, satisfyingly simple, was to allow me to continue to enjoy living in Prague, home of our first office, under the management of Radomir Horacek, whilst letting me come home to England; my intended market. You may well ask what has this to do with absinthe-drinking today, but bear with me: The learning curve provided by this period of self-education in the industry was the foundation of my role in returning absinthe commercially to Europe.

The joy of Czech Beer is its fullness of flavour, combined with the fact that Bohemia is not only the heartland, but in my view the birthplace of true lager-brewing. In Prague we would sit in cool Bohemian bars wondering what it was that made the beer taste so good and why the same beer (if it could be found at all in the UK) seemed to be a shadow of its former self. Was it's original character somehow lost in the transportation process? Or was the magical Bohemian atmosphere of Prague going to our heads?

The key was research, a task which proved both easy and enjoyable, as almost every town in Bohemia and Moravia has its own brewery. As is often the case, once commercialism and consumerism are stripped away, the answer provided one simple but fundamental principle: Locally-brewed Czech beer is pasteurised for a relatively short shelf life – from a couple of months, at which point it is at its rawest, most intense, and, arguably best; to six at the most. Most, if not all exported beer, is pasteurised to at least twelve months in order to extend its commercial life, completely changing the body and flavour of the beer in the process.

Once experienced, the local Czech product is the first step to a true appreciation of the finer points of real lager or beer. Unfortunately, consumers in Britain have become so accustomed to the sterility and blandness of lager that is treated to achieve a twelve-month shelf-life, they are often unaware of what they are missing. Marketing hyperbole maintains the illusion by extolling the virtues of "crisp" and "clean" beer, while the original, full-bodied character of the beer is lost in translation. Fortunately, there would be no such difficulty with absinthe, being a spirit with such a high volume of alcohol that it makes pasteurisation irrelevant.

The solution, I felt, was simple: I would export only beer with a maximum shelf-life of six months, which would retain its body and integrity. If it could be done locally with milk, with only three to seven days' shelf-life, I surmised that it was logistically possible to export a drink that was good for six months, affording the consumer the luxury of true-tasting, fuller-flavoured Czech beer. It worked!

I set up my first company, Bohemia Beer House Ltd. (now trading as BBH Spirits Ltd.) with the aim of evaluating and exporting Czech beer. The intention, satisfyingly simple, was to allow me to continue to enjoy living in Prague, home of our first office, under the management of Radomir Horacek, whilst letting me come home to England; my intended market. You may well ask what has this to do with absinthe-drinking today, but bear with me: The learning curve provided by this period of self-education in the industry was the foundation of my role in returning absinthe commercially to Europe.

The joy of Czech Beer is its fullness of flavour, combined with the fact that Bohemia is not only the heartland, but in my view the birthplace of true lager-brewing. In Prague we would sit in cool Bohemian bars wondering what it was that made the beer taste so good and why the same beer (if it could be found at all in the UK) seemed to be a shadow of its former self. Was it's original character somehow lost in the transportation process? Or was the magical Bohemian atmosphere of Prague going to our heads?

The key was research, a task which proved both easy and enjoyable, as almost every town in Bohemia and Moravia has its own brewery. As is often the case, once commercialism and consumerism are stripped away, the answer provided one simple but fundamental principle: Locally-brewed Czech beer is pasteurised for a relatively short shelf life from a couple of months, at which point it is at its rawest, most intense, and, arguably best; to six at the most. Most, if not all exported beer, is pasteurised to at least twelve months in order to extend its commercial life, completely changing the body and flavour of the beer in the process.

Once experienced, the local Czech product is the first step to a true appreciation of the finer points of real lager or beer. Unfortunately, consumers in Britain have become so accustomed to the sterility and blandness of lager that is treated to achieve a twelve-month shelf-life, they are often unaware of what they are missing. Marketing hyperbole maintains the illusion by extolling the virtues of "crisp" and "clean" beer, while the original, full-bodied character of the beer is lost in translation. Fortunately, there would be no such difficulty with absinthe, being a spirit with such a high volume of alcohol that it makes pasteurisation irrelevant.

The solution, I felt, was simple: I would export only beer with a maximum shelf-life of six months, which would retain its body and integrity. If it could be done locally with milk, with only three to seven days' shelf-life, I surmised that it was logistically possible to export a drink that was good for six months, affording the consumer the luxury of true-tasting, fuller-flavoured Czech beer. It worked!

rebel beer & beckerovka

Suited and booted, with Radomir (my local assistant and translator) I approached what we considered, after much tasting and travelling throughout the country, to be the best of the independent brands and breweries. We had something revolutionary to offer these local enterprises across the Czech Republic: access to the UK, one of Europe's key markets. Within six months we had signed up three good breweries, producing such beers as Lobkowicz, Rebel and our first spirit, the Czech national liqueur, (Becherovka, now, coincidentally, owned by Pernod Ricard.)

I returned to my family home, Bayford Hall in Hertfordshire (due north of London) to meet the enormous challenge of building a drinks distribution network from the ground up, a task which was to prove crucial to the opening up of the first real market for absinthe. One of my first tasks was to involve local Trading Standards Officer Paul Passi, who proved to be of invaluable help with labelling regulations and quality control issues. Little did I know at the time that the work we did together to ensure compliance with EU directives would turn out to be pivotal in achieving the safe return of absinthe to Europe and the wider world today. My insurance background was helpful here too, as we built a solid foundation on which to trade, including the all-important product liability cover we required in order to access larger clients and wider distribution.

When my first fourteen-wheel truckload of duty-paid beer arrived in 1996, it was immediately apparent that the winding lanes of our traditional English village were not the ideal location for heavy goods vehicles, not to mention their non English speaking Czech drivers. The lorry was so large that we had to unload the goods onto our flat bed Volkswagen truck in order to get it up the drive to the main hall. The beer was then lovingly transferred to the hall cellars via an improvised chute made of jerry-rigged scaffolding boards laid over the stairs. Help was drafted in as needed, the company at this stage consisting of Radomir in Prague and me in the UK.

It was in those cold cellars that the really hard work began. At the time my brewery suppliers had been unable, for the first few shipments, to comply with European labelling legislation, so I therefore had to open every case and by hand glue a back label to each bottle to ensure that it bore the required legal data.

It was at the other extreme of Bayford Hall  the attic that I set up my first UK office. By 2006, we had grown to such an extent that we moved into the stable block next door a bespoke building, designed, commissioned and built to incorporate our present day business, including absinthe internet operations and the global brand development headquarters for La Fée. This unique building was two and a half years in the design and build, covering 9,000 square feet of both office and living accommodation.

So began two years of importing fine traditional Czech Beer and various interesting spirits into the UK and supplying them to stylish, top-end independent bars in London, a premium client base which would be invaluable for Absinthe's renaissance. From the company car and delivery vehicle - my Wedgwood blue 1969 Triumph Herald 1360 Convertible...

I would make my pitch in person with the aid of large picture boards and maps, explaining my philosophy on real Czech beer in which I continue to believe passionately to this day (and have carried through to absinthe). I learnt very early on that the best beer does not necessarily come from one place alone. Although provenance, method and quality are key, the beer of every brewery is also set apart by its own unique flavour, substance and character. The freedom of operation which we have worked to maintain in the beer market is a luxury, the benefits of which can now be passed on to our clients through our La Fée Absinthe portfolio.

1998: Discovering Bohemian Absinth

During 1997 and 1998 my company started looking at broadening our drinks portfolio for the UK market. The Czech plum brandy Slivovitz and Bohemian Sekt, a sparkling wine, were added to our range. In early 1998 we came across Bohemian Absinth (without the final 'e'). During our first meeting at the distillery some two hours' drive south of Prague, we found that the producers had been dealing on and off with a private UK buyer and Absinth enthusiast called John Moore of Black Box Recorder and The Jesus and Mary Chain fame.

We had already come across John's name during our own research while reading an article he had written in an early edition of The Idler. At the time absinth was only available in a few Prague bars, and if any other source existed in Prague or the rest of Bohemia, its profile was low to the point of invisibility. Although I had been working and playing in Prague since 1993, I had not come across any noticeable presence of absinth while I was there.

John Moore is a musician and writer who's many talents include coaxing ethereal sounds from the musical saw and writing blogs for newspapers. In his article for The Idler he describes stumbling across absinth whilst on tour with his band in Prague, and finding himself drawn to its romance and hedonistic appeal.

John persuaded a distiller to post supplies of absinth to his home in London's Little Venice for personal consumption and enjoyment with a handful of friends and acquaintances. Owing to his professional commitments, however, he was unable to establish the legal and logistical infrastructure needed to take the business further. In conjunction with Gavin Pretor-Pinney and Tom Hodgkinson, writers and editors of The Idler, he formed a company called Green Services Ltd. and I first met with them in London early in 1998. At this meeting we quickly established that Green Services would handle public relations and assist with marketing, while Bohemia Beer House Ltd would take on the difficult end which involved setting a legal precedent for Absinthe, handling all logistics and managing development, design and finance. In honour of the new joint venture, Green Services was renamed Green Bohemia Ltd., which was felt by the expanded team John, Gavin, Tom and me to be an appropriate synthesis of our two company names.

Part 2 The Formative Years

Part 3: Discovering the truth...  and doing something about it ...

Part 4: Finding the right  People... Team La Fée

Part 5: The Industry takes note ... the Fifth and Final Chapter

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